7 exercises we used to figure out our company’s values
Many of us have been to the big office with the mission statement painted on the wall. If done wrong, it can feel more like a message from Big Brother than an accurate reflection of the workplace you’re visiting.
An infamous example is the case of Enron, who said they put these values above all else: Communication, Respect, Integrity, and Excellence. Unfortunately for them, the FBI didn’t agree.
With that skepticism in our pocket, we resisted the urge to put process to our principles for as long as we could. But then we reached a size where values weren’t necessarily self-evident. We found out that when you grow past 25 people or so, you’re no longer having conversations with every person every day.
So we put our guards down and came to recognize that writing our values down might be helpful in a few key ways:
1. We could have better expectations of people as we hire
2. Those new hires could get their bearings more quickly
3. We can use these values to help reinforce who we are as we grow
We set out to have some sessions where the entire team could work on them together. We wound up reading a lot of articles to inform them, including:
- Company Culture: The Untold Story of Buffer’s Values: Why We Created Them, and Why It Hurt
- 10 Steps for Developing Core Values by Tony Hsieh of Zappos
- Dave Logan’s “Mountains and Valleys” exercise
- “A Lightweight Branding Exercise for Startups.”
As a company who has been around for a while, the goal was not to produce values but to reveal them. Our thinking is that values aren’t what you want to be, but what you actually are: what behavior you hire for, what is encouraged, what skills are paid for, what is actually different and potentially bewildering about a workplace to somebody who just joined the team. So we got started.
(Our values are at the bottom if you’d like to scroll ahead.)
Session 1 (one hour)
Exercise 1: Adjectives
We asked each other to think of a person in our lives. Then, we each listed off five words that would describe them, positive or negative. We put one adjective per sticky note.
Next, we took the stack of those words and had a discussion on each as to whether they describe our company. We made sure to take an accurate inventory and not just say that any good words describe us and any bad words don’t. It’s enlightening to ask yourselves: “are we funny? Really, I mean, are we funny?” A lot of interesting dialogue followed. We eventually classified the words under “Yes, Kinda, and No.”
A snapshot of how some of the words were sorted (there were many more):
Yes: Smart, Adaptable, Curious, Collaborative, MacGuyver, Ambitious, Clever, Energizing, Loyal, Donuts…
Kinda: Awesome, Enjoyable, Obsessive, Awkward…
No: Chill, Stupid, Hilarious, “Fresh 2 Death”, Autonomous, Red…
Though I was disappointed to find out we’re not Fresh 2 Death, we moved onto the next exercise:
Exercise 2: What will make somebody successful here?
We asked ourselves to write down advice to a new hire who asks the million dollar question: how will they be successful here? The idea is to get past thinking about job requirements, and move toward thinking about universal behaviors that we share and encourage.
“Be ever-evolving: to client situations, to new technologies, to new trends. Be very adaptable.”
“Put something out in the world and actually giving shit about it. Care about what people see.”
“Try harder. Constantly improve. With experience you get better. It’s very easy to stop pushing yourself. Keep learning.”
“Efficient and attentive problem solver with initiative. We’re all faced with a lot of problems every day. Clever. Takes a lot of initiative.”
“Make your coworkers want you to work with them. No ego.”
Exercise 3: What’s the best part of working here?
Okay, this one is verging on feel-good territory, but it’s also important. When getting user feedback for an app, for instance, it’s more informative to find out why the people who use already use it love it, and double down on those factors— instead of focusing on reasons why somebody wouldn’t use it.
That’s because we can all come up with a million reasons not to like something. It’s more important to commit to the things that make people drawn to the company in the first place.
“It feels like we’re on the same team. It genuinely feels like we’re actually together.”
“The diversity of challenge. One day I might have problem A, might have to switch to problem B. Rare to have two days the same.”
“Feeling of accomplishment. My last job we rarely felt like we achieved things.”
“Work fast. Fail often. Succeed together. The way that people buy in. We all work hard.”
“Coworkers who don’t do pretentious bullshit. Other companies waste so much time and energy copying whatever is on the internet. When I’m here it’s like: Finally, somebody gets it.”
“Willingness to talk to colleagues. Willingness of them to listen.”
“The depth of commitment and dedication of colleagues to get it done. On every project we all suffer together and succeed together. Drive solutions and band together in adversity.”
“Challenging. Work can be fun but if it’s not challenging its not worth it.”
“The ability to explore and experiment. The recognition of our successes and individual values by company management. Not forced to work in any way.”
“Always new problems to solve. Everybody here cares about their work and respects your coworkers. Nobody gets written off.”
That wrapped up session #1, which took about an hour. Then, we had one homework assignment:
Exercise 4: What are your personal values?
We sent out a Google Form asking to list our personal values individually. Here was the prompt:
“Thanks for a great session. Next, submit 4 or 5 values that you PERSONALLY live by (or want to live by). These don’t have to be work-related. They should go towards defining who you are or who you want to be. Each value should be a short phrase or one word. This is HARD, but easier and more specific than thinking about the company. From here, we’ll work to find some things we share.”
We took those values and put them in a word cloud to see what bubbled to the top as values we share. It was cool to see some clear recurring themes. For instance, these were all listed as personal values from separate people:
- Constantly improve
- Constant learning
- Never stop learning
- Constantly reevaluate yourself
- You can always do better
Other phrases that were big in the cloud: Helpfulness, being humble, being respectful, giving and receiving praise, being thoughtful, working hard, and having ambition and pride in our work.
Session 2 (one hour)
Exercise 5: ALIENS!
We started out session #2 by breaking up into teams and giving them a less serious challenge: describe what we do to an alien. Some ground rules:
- The alien didn’t know our specific services (websites, apps) or understand acronyms
- They did speak English and understand basic concepts about business and technology
The goal was to explain what we do without using jargon, buzzwords, or common generalizations.
The teams presented their submissions:
“We put tools on computers to make humans lives easier.”
“We design and build a digital representation of companies, communicating their brand worldwide”
“Understand everything about a business so we can help businesses project their business worldwide and grow.”
“We create intuitive, engaging attractive ways to use and share information. We put tools on computers to make humans lives easier.”
Exercise 6: Unfair advantages
Next, we broke up into teams and thought about what we’re good at. Teams were asked to write down at least one thing you think gives Clique an unfair advantage. We then presented them to each other and had a discussion.
Here were some of the responses:
“Talent and skill”
“Smart team that likes to solve problems. No agency drama”
“Speed. We work hella fast”
“Not a chop shop”
“Responsible risk taking”
“We are smarter than other people” (which leads to…)
Final exercise: our 6 word story
And finally, we broke up into teams of 5 and gave ourselves 5 minutes to create a story of our company. The only restriction was that it had to be done in six words or less, in an effort to cut down these concepts to their true essence.
- Does it inform what we do?
- Does it highlight how we are unique?
- Who will do what with this information?
The teams presented their ideas. Here are some they came up with:
“We build your ideas for money.”
“Smart people solving unique problems digitally.”
“Clique with us, stick with us.”
“Build things. Build businesses. Build reputation.”
“Intuitive technology by bad asses.”
“A team of innovators happily creating.”
“Smart team, different process, cool shit.”
“Digital wizards fueled by Just Salad.”
Finally, the output
The activities above left us with so much information: hundreds of stickies, personal values from everyone at the company, six-word stories of who we are, and a much better idea of our differentiators. It was efficient, too: we got all of this in a matter of 2–3 total hours.
The best part of it all was that despite the sheer amount of words we shared and discussion that took place, there were clear elements that kept coming up time and time again. Our values had revealed themselves.
Our last step was just to sit down, find those correlations, and sand them down to be as simple as possible.
Without further adieu, here are our six values.
1. Build something.
Our guiding principle since day one. We are here to create things. Too many environments and jobs deprive us of the ability to create. Clique should be different. We should have a heavy bias towards action, do hard work, feel a sense of accomplishment regularly, create and experiment in our free time, and have immense pride in our craft.
2. Growth through quality.
When faced with a choice of getting bigger or getting better, we choose to get better. We invest in things that can be permanent: ourselves, our work, our relationships with clients. When we consistently over-deliver, when we’re a little flexible on scope, when we build deep and lasting relationships with people, we have created a salesforce that outstrips anything we could create internally: our clients. To quote Warren Buffett: “We will never trade reputation for money.” We will only grow if we feel like it will improve our work quality — if we are confident it will help us impact more people in a better way. We won’t grow for growth’s sake. (This mindset has helped us grow for 11 straight years 😉).
3. Never stop learning. Or teaching.
We want to be the best at getting better. Technology is the most rapidly evolving industry in the world. To stay on top of it, we have to commit to learning and improving — and not just with words, but with real, tangible investments. We created Clique University and hired a full-time Director of Education to prove this commitment. We aim to create a culture of constant personal growth and regeneration. And we recognize that any minute spent teaching one another will pay itself off tenfold.
4. Be open.
Our success depends on openness. Openness to new ideas. Openness to feedback. Openness to asking for help. Openness to new challenges and technologies. Openness to people from other cultures and experiences and backgrounds. Openness to our days turning out completely different than the way we planned. Be open.
5. Make somebody’s job easier.
When faced with a challenge, we shouldn’t ask how quickly we can hand this off to a colleague or client — we should ask how quickly they’ll be able to get done once we do. That means project managers arming designers with all the information they need to do their best work. That means designers creating clean, crisp files and nice briefs to deliver to engineers. That means engineers not marking something as “done” without providing the context a client needs to understand what happened. It’s a virtuous cycle where we all work to make somebody’s day better and our days are better as a result.
6. Take out the trash.
When hiring, we search for people with entrepreneurial backgrounds and those who take pride in executing in uncertain situations. Entrepreneurial people know that Big Things only come to life when a team pairs high-level thinking with low-level execution. We don’t say “that’s not our job.” We relish in those moments. The companies that experience consistent growth push forward by taking ownership. That also means feeling a personal investment in the success of our clients, and also means embracing the unglamorous stuff that gets stuff done: “taking out the trash” literally and figuratively.
Uncertainty kills action. And when you figure out who you are, and who you are not, and take the time to write it down, you get a lot more certainty. This enables everybody at a company to feel more ownership, to better understand expectations, and to act more boldly.
So we found it to be a worthwhile exercise, and hope that sharing this was helpful to a company doing a similar undertaking. Look forward to continuing a dialogue with you.
I’m a partner and co-founder at Clique, a leading design and engineering company that builds digital experiences for high-growth organizations. Clique has been named one of Chicago’s “Best and Brightest Companies to Work For,” honored at the Webbys and Awwwards, and took home a Gold at the American Business Awards. We’re usually hiring.